Sunday, February 14, 2016

FR #4: Boldly Fly the Doomed

This session was awesome for a number of reasons. First off, the party achieved a pretty major victory and I finally have a chance to award some much-deserved XP. More than that though, it's hard to play D&D with someone you don't have any kind of personal connection with. And it's hard to have any kind of personal connection with someone you've never met in person. With one player living in Oregon and the rest of us in Ohio, to get everyone together in person to meet and accomplish something big in-game isn't an opportunity that comes around often. We had it happen once with Jason in the three years we played Ravenloft. I'm truly thankful that the scheduling worked out, no one came down with the flu, and everyone was able to help make it happen. The personal interaction the players got to have will surely pay dividends down the road.

But enough of my emotional pandering; on to the recap!

20 Tarsakh, midday

The air in Brithem was somber, to say the least. The fiefdom had lost more than half its soldiery and a number of innocents, and the looming threat of the dragons' return was imminent. Beacons burned from the castle towers each night the party spent readying its inhabitants for a coming attack, casting enough light into the blackness to give castlegoers a fighting chance to see their deadly, flying adversaries before they arrived.

The party set plans into place over a number of days, ordering the assembly of additional ballistae, setting up fire sources amid the courtyards and stationing soldier cots near the bases of the northeast and northwest towers, both equipped with lookouts and mounted siege weapons at their tops. Farms were provided with battle horns and instructed to keep watch throughout each night. Clothiers helped build and stage mannequins around non-functioning weaponry in hopes of drawing the attention of unwise attackers. Berwyn spent time in the castle library and was granted select access to Mara's available spells and spell-scrolls.

Finally, one night several days into the party's stay, after all preparations were solidly in place, a horn-call echoed from the north after middark. Soldiers rushed to the towers and the PCs to positions along the north wall, ere two black silhouettes were spotted against the moonlit clouds, closing on the castle at an incredible rate. One started to descend upon a cluster of mannequins until the other issued a piercing screech, calling it back. They sped forward, and ballistae fired from atop the two front towers, one missile striking the westernmost dragon, causing it to dip briefly in flight.

The statistics employed for the ballistae (adapted from the 1e DMG, p. 108) are detailed below.

Brithem Ballistae
Manned by...Load time (rounds)THAC0Damage (S-M)Damage (L)Max range
4 soldiers (trained)1162d63d6320 ft
2 soldiers (trained)3182d63d6320 ft
4 laborers (untrained)3202d63d6320 ft
2 laborers (untrained)5202d63d6320 ft

Thus, with four trained soldiers (i.e., any 1st-level or higher character or NPC), a ballista could be fired every other round with each operator effectively improving the weapon THAC0 by one. With only two such operators, or four 0-level operators, the ballista could fire every four rounds at best, and untrained operators would provide no benefit to hit. One good idea the players had was for soldiers to fire a ballista, then shift sideways to attack with preloaded crossbows while laborers worked to reload the siege. I really liked the thinking here, even though the opportunity to execute it never arose.
The dragons closed to the towers and reared back, readying their breath weapons while arrows and spells were slung from the castle wall. Multiple castings of light from Berwyn and Arendeth blinded both enemies, whose acid breath blasted the tops of the towers, annihilating the ballistae there. One soldier was smothered to ruin, but the rest scrambled to the two remaining ballistae in the courtyard.

By the time they arrived, the dragons had already turned tail for the Witherwood, badly damaged by missiles and magic. Even as they abandoned their attack, Arendeth used heat metal on the ballista arrow still lodged into the breast of the dragon that had weathered the first hit. Cheers resounded from the castle wall as the dragons disappeared into the night.

Yet better news came the next morning, when a farmhand from the north brought word that one dragon had been seen falling to the pastures from flight during its retreat. The party set out to investigate, finding the fallen creature with a charred, gaping hole where the arrow wound had been. Upon ensuring it was dead, Wren severed the head from its body, and scales were removed from its hide to be packed away or donned as ornaments.

DM's Commentary

If one of my characters was going to die, I'd want it to be fighting a dragon. This was about as prepared as I've ever been going into a session for one or more characters to meet their ends, knowing full well that a single hit from the acid breath of an uninjured dragon was likely to do the deed, to any PC. In the end, the party was well-prepared and had a few key rolls land in its favor. In order of importance, I'd put the first round initiative rolls (which had the PCs and the majority of their allies attacking before the dragons could breathe, once within range) at the top, followed by the ballista hit from the west tower and the dragons' failed saves against light. A very honorable mention to the efficiency with which the soldiers were able to assemble functioning ballistae, raising the castle's attack power from one ballista to four in only a few days. The flip-side is that two were destroyed by the dragons, and the lack of remaining parts means that any additional ballistae now require 3d6 days each to be built, regardless of the number of individuals put to the task.

Undoubtedly, the characters won the day; driving away both dragons (even killing one, thanks to Arendeth's masterful use of heat metal) while losing only a single soldier and pair of siege weapons is an accomplishment beyond what I believed would be possible. Again, the rolls were critical, but the good planning on the part of the players was paramount. The encounter was night-and-day compared to the doom wrought by the dragons' first assault on Brithem before the PCs arrived, and the story award issued for the session certainly reflects this result. The dragons were ill-prepared for the onslaught that met them on their return trip to the castle.

When we started this campaign, I made a big deal about the choice of setting, and in particular the decision between established and homebrew. Ultimately, I made a decision I felt would help me deliver the richest and most enjoyable game possible. That said, it isn't always easy. The benefit of a published world is that it provides a framework to work within; the downside is that the DM feels bound to its canon, and needs to tread carefully when incorporating new elements. Brithem is my own creation; it was conceived and developed when Adam started telling me about the background for Berwyn. It also fits within the world; based on the Realms novels and supplements I've read, there's precedent for settlements like this along the Sword Coast. Brithem's proximity to Luskan makes the geography of its coastline important, as the fiefdom couldn't otherwise subsist given the pirating that abounds in the area.

The point is, where an established setting makes it easier to tell the players what's where and why, it puts an added burden on the DM when it comes to incorporating the custom elements that it encourages me to add. I can't simply toss things in pell-mell. Doing so can trigger a butterfly effect that makes my control over the setting unravel. On the plus side, this holds me to a higher standard of world-crafting and makes me think long and hard about what I'm doing at every step. It isn't a bad thing to be pushed to up my game.


XP awards for the first four sessions are as follows. For the Wolford expedition (seven-way split):
  • Owlbear - 425 XP
  • Lizard men, 26 (includes those driven off) - 1,040 XP
  • Grey oozes, 3 - 357 XP
  • Story award (PCs only) - 1,600 XP
This amounts to 660 XP each. For the events in Brithem:
  • Black dragon - 764 XP
  • Getting put to sleep and robbed along the road - 0 XP
  • Story award - 4,000 XP (!)
This amounts to 1,191 XP each, for a total of 1,851 XP per character (2,036 for those who qualify for the 10% bonus). The new party totals are:
  • Berwyn - 7,536
  • Arendeth - 7,536
  • Riwyn - 3,768/3,768
  • Wren - 3,425/3,768
Arendeth hereby attains level 4, and is presumed to spend downtime training while in Brithem.

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